On Race and SF — by Dev Agarwal

June 11, 2014 - 12:23 pm No Comments

As a teenager, looking to widen my science fiction reading, my friend Vic led me from our suburb into London, where he’d discovered Forbidden Planet. It was in the Planet that I found Barnes’ novel Streetlethal, the story of Aubry Knight. The cover inaccurately describes Knight as “A Road Warrior in the LA of the Future,” referencing Mad Max, and depicts him as a muscular, semi-naked white man, who looks vaguely like Lee Majors as Steve Austin (really).

In the US some years later, I came across Steven Barnes 1989 novel, Gorgon Child, the sequel to Streetlethal. This time the cover had two characters on the front. A tough looking man, in sunglasses and a lithe, beautiful woman (we’ll leave gender politics for another time). I knew Aubry Knight (the Steve Austin look-alike from the first novel) wasn’t the lithe, beautiful woman. What came as a huge surprise was that Aubry Knight was now black. Or, more significantly, had always been black.

Rereading Streetlethal, I struggled to find any references to Knight as black or African American. Numerous other characters are described by their race, using terms like Caucasian, Asian, Latino, etc. There are references to Knight’s body, his musculature in particular, as he’s a fighter, but no references that he’s black. “His dark, scarred face,” is on page 1, and perhaps this was meant to indicate that Barnes’ protagonist was black, though presumably Barclay Shaw, who painted the cover art, assumed he was white, as did I.

I do not, of course, criticize Steven Barnes, who is himself black, and has written about race and racial politics. He gave me a lot of reading pleasure in those books and he presumably had a clear vision of Aubry Knight as a black man when he wrote them. But perhaps he couldn’t say it explicitly. Knight’s ethnicity exists in negative. Barnes remains true to it by not writing anything that indicates that Knight is of any other race. Knight is a stealth minority character. This is an example of the challenge that a black writer can face, trying to write what he wants to write and how his vision can be reinterpreted by cover artists and readers.

That was some years ago, in the 1980s, and the story of Aubry Knight actually shows that representation has evolved. Knight after all exists, even if misrepresented, or camouflaged. Going back two decades, Samuel R Delany once submitted his novel Nova to Analog Magazine. John W. Campbell, Jr rejected it, Delany recounts, “with a phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.”

Aubry Knight made it into print, which is a step forward. However, even in the twenty first century, we’ve still got a long way to go. As recently as 2009, the protagonist of Justine Larbalastier’s Liar was whitewashed on the original US cover, although the protagonist even describes herself as black in the text. Echoing this experience, in 2004 Ursula LeGuin said, “Even when [my characters] aren’t white in the text, they are white on the cover.”

Who’s responsible for the continued prevalence of a homogonised and simplistic point of view? Publishers are perhaps afraid that books picturing non-white characters won’t sell, despite the fact that they frequently do. Barnes’ UK readers didn’t know that they were asked to relate to a black character but they did, thus confirming that a black character’s motivations and needs are indivisible from his white counterparts.

I had my own experience with what might be called “cultural default settings” while attending a writers’ workshop in the US. I submitted a story, “James,” that was mostly well received, but also surprisingly divisive.  The protagonist, James, is trapped in poverty, joblessness and poor housing. He’s drawn into crime by his brother, Andy. At one point Andy refers to James as “bro”.

The first person to comment in the workshop said: “Brace yourself, I’m going to be mean.  You have chosen the single most clichéd idea in fiction.  A black man in the ghetto turning to crime.”

In that group, the writer didn’t comment until the end of the discussion, and there were 18 more comments to go. However, I interrupted by reflex to say, “James is not black.”

The criticism juddered to a halt.  My fellow workshopper said, “What?”

“He’s not black.”

Rallying, he said, “It doesn’t say he’s not black.”

Puzzled by this logic, I said, “It doesn’t say he is.”

It’s possible that this exchange could have stretched into infinity, both statements true, echoing off each other forever. However, the fact that James was white proved too much for this particular workshopper and the discussion rolled on past him. The group then discussed whether there were “tells” in the story that indicated that James was black, centring on the overt one, the use of the word, “bro.” What wasn’t discussed was the implicit and more awkward point: whether criminality and poverty equal “black”. The subtext is, of course, that if you write about a character like Aubry Knight and you never overtly describe him as black or African-American, then the “cultural default setting” kicks in and he becomes white, like the majority. But if you’re writing crime, then the default setting flips. The protagonist is not like majority. James turned to crime, so he must be black. That’s what they do.

On discovering that Aubry Knight was black, I had to adjust my frame of reference to continue reading Gorgon Child. Something the readers of “James” also struggled to do. That didn’t seem significant at the time, but looking back, a lot of readers might not make that transition, even today. The links in the process of publishing, from the writer’s initial break through, to the editing and cover art and marketing of his or her work, can all disrupt what writers say and what they write about.

This was all some time ago, and the territory of SF changes as it and the wider culture we sit in evolves. The politician Stephanie Bannister made global headlines when she unwisely informed Australia that “I’m not opposed to Islam as a country.” Any discussion of race and representation must look at how the Muslim world in depicted, both in and outside of the genre. The Muslim world has always held an interest for the genre, both in generating its own SF (from Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s “Sultana’s Dream,” to the prolific Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia). However, the Muslim world is more represented in the genre as characters rather than writers and here we can see a cultural shift.

Jitterbug (1984) by Mike McQuay is a visceral, well-realised SF dystopia. It also features three specific Muslim tropes. Faisel ibn Al Sa’ud is the leader of a deeply nefarious corporation that has enslaved the planet and is busy destroying country-sized swathes of it. Faisel’s sister in law, Nura, is mostly a helpless object, held prisoner, and his brother, Abdullah, is the noble savage who eschews all modern civilization. All three of them are archetypical Muslims, none of them fully rounded. The more essential and dynamic characters are all American. But we’ve moved on past this, in our genre, at least. Muslims have evolved from clichés or “moving wallpaper” to characters integral to the plot in series like Deep Space Nine and Lost, with Alexander Siddig’s and Naveen Andrews’ characters. Mainstream culture appears to be moving more slowly, where the post 9/11 experience has thrown up endless Arab terrorists in mainstream culture (as in 24 and Homeland).

The genre looks better, more embracing and experimental. Works such as Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012) by Saladin Ahmed rebalances the perspective. This Locus award-winning fantasy novel, could not be further from Jitterbug (and perhaps the mainstream) in its relationship to the Muslim world.

Books like Thrown perhaps reflect that we are already living in the SF future. This is a world that could not be credibly conceived of fifty years ago, or even twenty. A black president, for example, existed in cinema as far back as 1933, (in Rufus Jones for President, featuring a seven-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr) but only as fantasy. Yet, here we are, living what might be called the mundane SF present of a black presidency. The significance of Obama’s story — particularly in winning a second term — may be due to the change in US demographics. Romney’s campaign was based on a Republican strategy of drawing on “angry white men.” This strategy failed in 2012 because they were not, as Republican Lindsey Graham observed, producing enough angry white men to beat Obama. And every month since the election in 2012, fifty thousand Hispanics become eligible to vote. This creates an unstoppable demographic shift in America’s politics, economics and culture. Many of these people will also be consuming fiction, watching movies and TV. These are the people who will read science fiction in future, and if they’re reading it, that means there will be more of it and increasingly more diverse characters and cultures represented in it.

Some people are terrified by this change. In our genre, we’re already thinking about the future. We are always the cutting edge of culture and we have long understood the attraction of the alien as a character — or the attraction of exploring a landscape that is not our own. We also often see the opportunities of wider markets with more diversity of writers and readers. This offers an increase in the breadth of characters and types of stories that demographic change can bring. When minority voices cease to be in the minority, they have the socioeconomic might to challenge the orthodoxy. This change is good for all of us, making our genre stronger, deeper and more varied.

Footnotes

1 Ahmed Khaled Towfik is interviewed by Cheryl Morgan in Locus (available online).

2 Thanks to the author Kari Sperring for her work in organising the panel, Why is the future drawn so white? at Eastercon 2013 and bringing together a number of us to discuss these issues.

3 For examples of accessible fiction that explores the themes of race and identity, in our genre, the touchstones must be Samuel R Delany and Octavia Butler. Any of Butler’s books consider the wide complex relationships between cultures and people who look and act differently to each other. She extrapolates from there to a discussion around what it means to be alien. In a rich field, Kindred (1979) and Bloodchild and Other Stories (1996) stand out. Similarly with Delany, my personal favourites are Dhalgren (1975) and The Einstein Intersection (1967).

4 Outside the genre, I’d like to mention a fun example of a film that slyly explores diversity. This is the film 48 Hours. This film is the cop buddy movie that not only launched Eddie Murphy’s career, but the “career” of the cop buddy movie itself. The film came out in 1982 and the strength of the format can be seen in numerous black cop/white cop pairings ever since (this year’s 2 Guns, is just the most recent). What’s noticeable about 48 Hours is, as John Patterson in The Guardian remarks, the Nolte and Murphy characters have a “mutual racial antagonism (that) seems shockingly forthright today”. Firstly, there is an obvious power imbalance, the white cop holds the black criminal in handcuffs, then endlessly insults him, racially abuses him and even beats him up. The film travels the familiar path of redemption through violence, but the cop buddy format now glosses over any debate around inequality, or even diversity. There is no real distinction between the cops anymore as the two characters homogenise until there is no discrimination to address. 48 Hours is far more honest and also, Walter Hill and his writing team appear to be having fun with the edges of a wider debate. The film references a bank robbing gang that has dissolved. They are never seen together, but their members include, whites, blacks, Asians and Native Americans in a subtle reference to diversity. And how many cop movies can say that there’s a discussion about the difference between types of Indians? James Remar’s character says, “No, not with a turban. You know, a squaw.” Thus referencing two ethnic minorities, and in the middle of an action movie.

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Bio:
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Dev Agarwal is a science fiction and fantasy writer. He also is an editor for Ireland’s science fiction magazine, Albedo One. His fiction has appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies in Britain and America. Dev’s latest story is ‘Blight’ in Looking Landwards, published by Newcon Press. Come and say hello in between panels, if you’re at Loncon.

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